The holidays are here, which does not mean much of anything to the baseball world. A lull in offseason activity? Perhaps, though don’t bet on it: Last year, news that an MVP-finalist to-be would be joining the Nationals broke on Christmas Eve. Now, Daniel Murphy is as pivotal a player as any in their lineup.
In other words, keep an eye out. For now, a few things to think about over the next few days, below:
One of the most productive power hitters available finally found a home Thursday, when Edwin Encarnacion reportedly agreed to a three-year deal with the Indians worth $60 million. Encarnacion was one of the prized commodities in a market loaded with available sluggers, and was therefore considered a lynchpin of sorts. Once he signed, consensus held, the rest of the market would begin to move.
Among those available are National League home run co-leader Chris Carter, American League home run leader Mark Trumbo and Encarnacion’s former teammate Jose Bautista are all free agents. Encarnacion hit more home runs over the past five years than Yoenis Cespedes, who got a four-year deal worth $110 million from the Mets earlier this offseason. The big-power market is unpredictable, and cratered for Encarnacion, who might set a lower bar for the rest than expected. Perhaps his deal will have little effect. But the fact is that several big-bat, low-mobility types are finding few buyers bustling to hire them. Could the Nationals sense value in this realm and pounce?
Perhaps, because hunting low-cost options is becoming something of a habit. But the fact remains that any of those big sluggers — Carter, Trumbo, Bautista and the rest — are everyday players. The Nationals do not have room for a first baseman or big, bumbling outfielder in their everyday lineup.
What they do have are injury risks, in Jayson Werth in left field, in Ryan Zimmerman at first. Adding a corner outfielder with power would allow them to spell those players, while maintaining an elite everyday talent should one of theirs suffer an injury. The Nationals do not have nearly as much right-handed power as left, and could use some more big boppers in general now that Wilson Ramos has gone elsewhere. Go get one of the big guys, right?
The wrinkle is that as much sense as loading up on power and finding room later makes sense for a contender with a bench that currently lacks prolific power, it makes little sense for those players signing these deals. For example, take Brandon Moss, a first baseman/outfielder with great power from the left side.
Moss is not in the same tier as Trumbo, Carter and the rest, and would therefore seem like a decent bench/part-time option for the Nationals — a pure power hitter in a lineup conceding some pop for contact. But Moss’s camp believes he is an everyday player, and is therefore not considering places without an obvious position for him. Perhaps if no market develops, that will change, but for now, the Nationals would have to indicate a willingness to clear room in their everyday lineup to entice one of the big sluggers. Right now, that seems unlikely — though Mike Rizzo tends to consider all possibilities.
As you might have heard, the Nationals still do not have an obvious closer, though they likely are not done with their bullpen just yet. After losing out on Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen, the Nationals talked to Brad Ziegler’s representatives about the former Diamondbacks closer, who eventually signed with Miami. Exactly how seriously they pursued him remains unclear, though any pursuit likely fell short of two years and $16 million he got to set up A.J. Ramos in Miami.
Greg Holland remains available, and the Nationals have had some interest in him since he first threw for scouts in November. But the takeaway from the first two months of this offseason is that the Nationals are not willing to reach for veteran middle relief help — read, three years and $40 million for a Mike Dunn type — given the young talent still sitting in their bullpen.
That does not mean they will not add there. The Rays, A’s, and others have relievers to deal, and Rizzo has plenty of history dealing with both of those teams. The Nationals also have had good luck with recent non-roster invitees: Matt Belisle, for example, became a high-character veteran staple of the bullpen last year and pitched to a 1.76 ERA in limited chances in middle relief. He, too, is still a free agent.
But as of Friday morning, the Nationals could compile a bullpen including Oliver Perez, Sammy Solis, Blake Treinen, Shawn Kelley, Trevor Gott, and Koda Glover. Gott proved himself as a big leaguer with his high-90s fastball in 2015, but was boxed out of a big league spot in 2016. Glover has all the pieces of a future closer. Perez struggled at times last season, but is a veteran presence with the ability to get elite left-handed hitters out — when he has command. In other words, the Nationals are returning much of what was one of the top three bullpens in baseball from start to finish last season. The Nationals had Melancon for just two of those months.
When (if) the Encarnacion deal becomes official, the Indians will lose their first-round draft pick in accordance with the old qualifying offer system. The Indians were set to choose 25th overall, with the Nationals at 26. If the deal is finalized, the Nationals will move up to 25th — the highest they have chosen since 2014, when they picked Erick Fedde 18th overall.